In search of beloved ‘desaparecidos’

In search of beloved ‘desaparecidos’
Portraits of Bazoo de Jesus, Jonas Burgos and Dexter Capuyan —CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS

How does a family mark the birthday of a loved one missing for 16 years, abducted by unidentified men believed to be military or police agents? By strengthening solidarity with other families in the same sorrowful straits. 

On April 2, some of these families gathered at the Bantayog ng mga Bayani grounds in Quezon City to share their stories and the progress—or lack of it—in the search for their beloved desaparecidos (the disappeared).  

The filmmaker JL Burgos said he and other family members could not celebrate the birthday of his “Kuya Jay” because it fell on Good Friday. Kuya Jay is Jonas Burgos, the third child of the late press freedom icon Joe Burgos and his wife Edith; he turned 54 on March 29. 

Jonas Burgos, a farmer and activist, went missing on April 28, 2007, after being abducted by a group of men from a mall in Quezon City. Witnesses said the last words he was heard saying before being taken away were: “Aktibista lang po ako” (I’m just an activist).”

The Court of Appeals, in a resolution issued on March 17, 2013, categorically held one Harry Baliaga Jr. and the Armed Forces of the Philippines and its elements, particularly the Army, as responsible and accountable, respectively, for the abduction of Jonas Burgos. This resolution was upheld by the Supreme Court on Feb. 2, 2014. 

2,078 documented cases

In June 2023, the group FIND (or the Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearance) said there were 2,078 documented cases of enforced disappearance since the imposition of martial law in the Philippines. Of these desaparecidos, 1,165 are still missing and 280 have been found dead, FIND said. 

The Philippines has the highest number of enforced disappearances in Southeast Asia, Satur Ocampo, a former lawmaker and journalist, wrote in his column in the Philippine Star, citing a 2021 United Nations report. 

On the same day of Jonas Burgos’ abduction 16 years later, Dexter Capuyan and Gene Roz Jamil “Bazoo” de Jesus, two activists working with indigenous peoples, were forcibly taken in Taytay, Rizal, by men who reportedly claimed to be members of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group of the Philippine National Police. Nothing has been heard from them since. The police have neither confirmed nor denied the abduction.

Prior to their disappearance, Capuyan was a suspected leader of the communist New People’s Army, and was wanted on charges of murder and frustrated murder. He had a bounty of P2.85 million on his head. De Jesus was facing charges in the province of Ifugao and other areas in the Cordillera. 

‘Sunset Gathering’

On April 2 at the Bantayog ng mga Bayani grounds, it was beginning to get dark when the program started—quite apt for the event called a “Sunset Gathering.”  Lanterns were brought to the stage by members of the families to illuminate the photographs of their missing kin. 

Event for the desaparecidos
Artists Chikoy Pura and Bayang Barrios render songs during the event.

The singer Bayang Barrios rendered a soulful cover of Joey Ayala’s “Awit ng Mortal,” and set the tone. 

The playwright Bonifacio Ilagan, whose sister Rizalina was arrested along with nine other student activists in July 1977 and has not been seen since, waxed poetic in his opening statement. 

“We may not see the setting sun where we are right now, but we are aware of the darkness that slowly envelops us. And yet, together we know that tomorrow the light will return,” Ilagan, himself a former detainee, said in Filipino. 

He spoke slowly, articulating what must have been in the mind of those gathered: “We cannot stop at simply remembering. The best tribute is to continue to seek justice and carry on the struggle for which they fought and died.” 

Mariegay Portajada, daughter of a labor leader missing since 1987, was categorical in saying that she cannot find it in her heart to forgive those behind her father’s disappearance: “Walang kapatawaran sa puso ko.”  

Relatives of desaparecidos
Edith Burgos, mother to Jonas, with Ida de Jesus (back to the camera), daughter to a desaparecido.

Edith Burgos, now 80, narrated a dream she had of her husband Joe. In the dream, she said, their children were rushing to the sea, disturbing Joe’s contemplation. When he asked them why the rush, the children said they were trying to catch the sun. She said this was what Joe told their children: “The best way to catch the light is to turn your back and face the darkness.”  

As she thanked those present, Edith Burgos said: “We have faced the darkness, and we are now glimmers of light to each other.” 

Then torches were lit as the families chanted their longtime demand: “Surface the disappeared!”

Read more: Project Gunita et al.: ‘The truth will outshine the lies’

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